Home Office sets up inquiry into riot at jail

A SENIOR Prison Service official is to investigate a Boxing Day riot at the Reading Remand Centre, Berkshire, the Home Office said last night.

Gary Dadds, a former manager of the service's London North region, who begins work today, is expected to inquire into whether there were sufficient officers on duty when the trouble erupted.

According to one report, reduced Christmas staffing levels meant there were just 12 prison officers to control 128 prisoners and officers on the affected wing were outnumbered by 10 to 1.

Meanwhile, the centre's governor said yesterday that he could find no reason for the disturbances. Paul Dixon will report to Mr Dadds, who in turn will report to the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, on the damage done to the centre, which holds male remand prisoners aged 16-21. They will also investigate the circumstances in which the rioting broke out. But in the immediate aftermath of the riot, Mr Dixon was unable to identify any single flashpoint. He said on BBC Radio: 'We are disappointed. We were trying to provide the best regime we could for the lads under the circumstances and they went on the rampage.'

The centre denied reports that the prisoners were protesting over television viewing times, although there are two television sets in the recreation area where the riot started. However, penal reform groups said the rioting could have been prevented if the inmates had been treated more reasonably.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: 'The conditions at Reading are not ideal for remand prisoners and anyway these boys shouldn't be taken away from their families and locked up, especially at Christmas. It is damaging to these people and it's a totally pointless experience for them.' She said 70 per cent of those on remand at Reading would not get a prison sentence and they knew this. 'Of course they get resentful, angry and bitter. I don't condone their violence but I can understand it.'

The disturbances started at 7.15pm on Saturday, when 48 prisoners refused to return to their cells after a recreation period. They overpowered a prison officer in the recreation room and took away his keys. During the next three hours, other officers were injured and keys stolen as inmates rampaged through a wing of the remand centre and a part of the grounds. They lit fires in the kitchen and the gym, and caused widespread damage to the activities centre, education block, and computer room.

At one stage, four prisoners seized a van and tried to break out by ramming a security gate. Police had parked a fire engine across the gate in case it gave way.

The riot ended when a large number of officers stormed the wing and overpowered the prisoners who were causing the disturbance. Up to 150 officers from the centre and 11 other prison service establishments across the South were involved in the operation.

One inmate was treated at the centre for cuts and bruises, and another was taken to hospital suffering from a suspected drug overdose taken during the riot. Earlier, three prison officers had been taken to hospital with injuries suffered when the riot began.

Eight prisoners were last night maintaining a Christmas hunger strike to protest over what they claim are wrongful convictions. The men, at the top security Long Lartin Prison near Evesham, in Hereford and Worcester, were continuing to refuse meals after three days without food.

More than 30 inmates at jails throughout the country, including 25 at Long Lartin, joined the protest which was due to end at midnight on Boxing Day.

Leading article, letters, page 12